Ontario Power Generation phases out safety gear too quickly

CUPE wins grievance for one group of staff, not the other

When Ontario Power Generation phased out its safety gear, it did so wrongly for one group of workers, but not for another, an arbitrator has ruled.

Before the electrical company entered into collective bargaining with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), it decided in 2012 to scrap the long standing practice of providing undergarments to certain employees, citing technological improvements that rendered the garments obsolete.

CUPE disagreed and filed two grievances challenging the employer’s actions on the grounds that providing undergarments was an "environmental privilege" under the collective agreement and was a working condition that could not be unilaterally changed by the employer.

The first grievance, pertaining to employees performing radiological work, was dismissed by arbitrator Larry Steinberg as Ontario Power Generation provided proper and timely notice it was eliminating the undergarment provision.

The second grievance, on the other hand, was allowed because it failed to provide such notice.

According to the union, since the 1970s, Ontario Power Generation had supplied T-shirts, underpants, bras and socks for radiological employees working in the protected areas of its nuclear generating stations.

This reduced the potential risk of taking undergarments contaminated with radiation out of the plant and, further, the nature of the work required employees to shower and change clothing repeatedly during a shift.

Thus, "this environment privilege is longstanding and is for the purpose of health and safety, hygiene, comfort and convenience," CUPE said.

However, the company argued that improved technology — including screening for contamination and improved practices and procedures — made the undergarments unnecessary.

As such, in 2002, the company announced it would no longer provide clothing for radiological work.

For this, Steinberg sided with the employer, saying the union could not have been concerned with health and safety as it did not file a grievance when the decision was first made back in 2002.

Secondly, no scientific or technical evidence was submitted from either party proving or disproving a hazard.

Electrical workers, however, were another matter entirely as the collective agreement language was loose.

While it was not an explicit requirement, cotton undergarments (which would not melt into the skin in the event of an arc flash or fire) were made available and used regularly by those workers.

The grievance concerning electrical workers was filed in 2012, the same year the employer announced it would no longer provide undergarments, following a joint health and safety committee’s conclusion that it "would have a direct negative impact on worker safety, particularly those performing electrical work."

This grievance was allowed.

Reference: Ontario Power Generation and the Power Workers’ Union, affiliated with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1000. Larry Steinberg — arbitrator. Paulene Pasieka for the employer, John Monger and Jessica Latimer for the union. Jan. 6, 2015.

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